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S.C. voter ID will let those without ID vote?

By Fannie Flono

Did the judges get South Carolina officials to pinky-swear?

That’s what I wondered when I read that a three-judge federal court panel that approved South Carolina’s voter ID law Wednesday said they were relying on S.C. officials’ vow to liberally interpret the law’s “expansive reasonable impediment provision.” That provision, which S.C. officials interpreted more broadly as the court trial unfolded, would enable voters to cast ballots even if they don’t possess one of the five types of photo IDs required by the law.

That clause isn’t making the headlines or TV sound bites but it was key to court approval of the S.C. law that the U.S. Justice Department had rejected.

Under the provision, voters sign an affidavit citing a “reasonable impediment” to having obtained a photo ID. They can then cast a provisional ballot, which must be counted unless formally challenged.

“(The law) allows citizens with non-photo voter registration cards to still vote without a photo ID so long as they state the reason for not having obtained one,” the judges wrote in their ruling. Ummm.

So S.C. officials, up in arms about the so-called lack of voter integrity because there was no photo voter ID law, will now allow people to skirt it if they just have a good reason? OK. On your honor? Pinky-swear?

And what exactly is a “reasonable impediment”? The S.C. law is fairly vague. Pressed by the courts to clarify it, Marci Andino, South Carolina’s State Election Commission executive director, testified poll workers would be encouraged to err on the side of voters in deciding whether the potential voter truly had a “reasonable impediment.” A signed, notarized affidavit would be needed but notaries would be at all polling places and wouldn’t charge a fee. If no notary was available, affidavits would be accepted anyway, she said.

None of that is in the law, of course.

The Justice Department says implementation of the law will be scrutinized. “The court’s [ruling] is expressly conditioned on South Carolina’s binding promise that all qualified voters without photo ID will still be allowed to vote without additional burden. If the law – as modified by South Carolina during the course of the trial – takes effect, the attorney general intends to monitor its implementation closely to ensure compliance with the court’s order,” the department said.

S.C. officials aren’t focusing on changes they made to get the law approved – they also expanded the number of qualifying photo IDs and created a photo voter registration card that can be obtained for free at elections offices – or that the judges won’t allow it to be applied to next month’s election. It would go into effect in 2013. And they aren’t concerned that, by their own admission during the court hearing, the S.C. voter ID law won’t address any of the examples of voter fraud they looked at in drafting the S.C. law – vote buying or voters being registered in two or more states.

A pleased S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson declared the ruling affirms the S.C. law should not have been rejected by the Justice Department in the first place. One of the Bush-appointed judges hearing the case said otherwise, noting the law had been substantially modified during the trial: “It is understandable that the attorney general of the United States… would raise serious concerns about South Carolina’s voter photo ID law as it then stood,” Judge John Bates wrote in a separate opinion.

The issue seems headed for the U.S. Supreme Court, given the various voter ID laws nationwide. But that probably won’t stop N.C. lawmakers from reviving a voter ID bill that Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed in the last legislative session.

The legislation is a waste of time and money. But if lawmakers do revive the idea, South Carolina’s experience shows what is more likely to win judicial favor: A law that allows a number of forms of identification and does not prevent a legitimate voter from voting without a photo ID if they explain why they don’t have one.

S.C. officials have crossed their hearts and pinky-swore that’s what their law will do. We’ll see.

Email: fflono@charlotteobserver.com.
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